Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Qaddafi’s Fall Rivets Yemen

How the rebel victory in Libya is inspiring the revolutionaries in Sanaa.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

SANAA, Yemen — Shock waves are once again rippling across the Arab world. Scenes of Libya's "freedom fighters" streaming into Tripoli on Monday, Aug. 22, were soon reverberating across the region and the world. It was not long before eyes were turning to the other rulers under threat in the Middle East, searching for the next candidate to fall. Most turned to Syria, where some are prophesying that a similar fate awaits the beleaguered and increasingly isolated President Bashar al-Assad.

But in Yemen, the poorest and youngest country in the Arab world, tens of thousands were also tuning in to soak up the drama unfolding in North Africa. It was the downfall of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak in early February that first set Yemen's protest movement ablaze, sending thousands of young men spilling into the capital's dusty streets to face the rubber bullets and water cannons of President Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime.

Six months of mass demonstrations and armed clashes have come to a grinding stalemate between the seemingly irremovable Saleh and a fractured opposition struggling to form a transitional government to manage the democratization of Yemen.

SANAA, Yemen — Shock waves are once again rippling across the Arab world. Scenes of Libya’s "freedom fighters" streaming into Tripoli on Monday, Aug. 22, were soon reverberating across the region and the world. It was not long before eyes were turning to the other rulers under threat in the Middle East, searching for the next candidate to fall. Most turned to Syria, where some are prophesying that a similar fate awaits the beleaguered and increasingly isolated President Bashar al-Assad.

But in Yemen, the poorest and youngest country in the Arab world, tens of thousands were also tuning in to soak up the drama unfolding in North Africa. It was the downfall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in early February that first set Yemen’s protest movement ablaze, sending thousands of young men spilling into the capital’s dusty streets to face the rubber bullets and water cannons of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime.

Six months of mass demonstrations and armed clashes have come to a grinding stalemate between the seemingly irremovable Saleh and a fractured opposition struggling to form a transitional government to manage the democratization of Yemen.

But Sunday night, as the Libyan rebels tightened their grasp on Tripoli, that same feeling of nervous energy and unfathomed potential was back in Sanaa. Excitement seemed to ripple down the long lines of dusty, battered tents in Change Square, a sprawling shantytown filled with thousands of die-hard protesters, as men fumbled with their television remotes and cranked up the volume on their radios.

Within minutes a huge crowd had assembled around a projector in the middle of the square to watch the fuzzy images of jubilant Libyans being broadcast live on Al Jazeera dance across a white sheet of tarpaulin. One man tugged at my sleeve, beckoning up at the sight of two men draped in Libyan flags holding each other in an emotional embrace, and shouted in English, "We want this too!" A teenager who had shimmied up a rusty lamppost with a megaphone in his hand soon whipped the crowd into a frenzy, shouting, "O Ali and O Bashar, Qaddafi lost his head."

"Our turn tomorrow," the crowd roared as it marched out of the square.

The Libyan showdown has brought a welcome breath of fresh air to Yemen’s uprising, which as it enters its seventh month is threatening to grow stale. A few months ago, the deafening calls for the strongman to go followed by a series of mass defections by major generals and senior members of Saleh’s government and tribe appeared to have brought his regime to its knees. But in recent months the momentum has ebbed. The Yemeni youth movement is slowly being nudged aside by powerful tribal warlords and military chiefs jostling for position.

Little has changed since early June, when Saleh was airlifted to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment after a suspected booby-trap explosion ripped through the mosque in his compound, maiming the president and injuring several of his aides. Saleh was lucky to escape with his life. On Monday, Abdul Aziz Abdul Ghani, the speaker of Yemen’s upper house of parliament and the third-most powerful political figure in the Yemeni government, succumbed to the injuries he sustained in the same attack. Ghani, known to be one of the few officials Saleh trusted, is the second senior official to have lost his life in the palace explosion.

But now, nearly three months and 10 operations later, Saleh looks to be gearing up for a dramatic return to his country. He rounded off a televised address to the country last week with a vow to his supporters that he would "return to Sanaa soon." His speech was met with a deafening chorus of boos and gunfire as his supporters fired their Kalashnikovs in celebration, and his opponents in protest, at the prospect of his homecoming.

Ironically, Saleh’s exodus has helped ease the strain on his crumbling regime, which is currently headed by his deputy, Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, and shielded by his son, Ahmed Ali, the head of Yemen’s elite Republican Guard. Those rallying in Change Square, now bereft of their once deafening, powerful rallying cry, "Irhal, ya Ali" ("Go out, Ali"), are being forced to come up with a new set of demands and strategies to try to push their uprising forward.

But with no common enemy, the fragile alliance binding the disparate members of Yemen’s opposition is beginning to show its cracks. On Sunday, a group of influential politicians pulled out of a 143-member national council formed last week by the opposition, claiming it did not fairly represent politicians from the oil-exporting south. (North and South Yemen were unified under Saleh in 1990, but southerners often accuse the north of discrimination.)

Yemen’s formal opposition, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a motley grouping of Islamists, socialists, and tribal elements — not to be confused with the street movement — has spent months trying in vain to broker Saleh’s exit. In May, the JMP signed a deal drawn up by the Gulf Cooperation Council that sought to end the veteran leader’s 33-year rule. But Saleh has repeatedly refused to sign, and the fear remains that if the president goes for good, the bonds holding together Yemen’s Shiite rebels, southern secessionists, and English-speaking students will quickly unravel.

A sudden reappearance by Saleh might breathe new life into the protesters, but it could just as easily spell civil war. Sadeq al-Ahmar, the grizzly-bearded sheikh at the head of Yemen’s most influential tribe, which has sided with the opposition, recently swore "by God" that he would "never let Saleh rule again." The last time hostilities between the Saleh and Ahmar families turned violent, in May, a week’s worth of mortar battles erupted, flattening an entire neighborhood in the capital’s east and killing hundreds on both sides. With thousands of Ahmar’s rebel tribesmen and renegade troops loyal to defected general Ali Mohsin roaming the capital, it would only take the smallest of sparks to reignite hostilities.

Whether it’s Saleh or someone else who seizes the reins in Yemen, the country’s next leader will have a lot to contend with: a growing political vacuum, a rapidly imploding economy, and the prospect of even deeper chaos as outlying provinces slide from the government’s grasp into the hands of al Qaeda and other jihadi groups that are exploiting the political turmoil to move more freely and launch more ambitious attacks.

With little prospect of NATO or other foreign troops on the ground in Yemen, Saleh may not be as rattled by the Libyan experience as some might hope. Yet the sight of Qaddafi behind bars could still have an earth-shattering effect in Yemen. If Egypt was anything to go by, Libya might still prove inspirational enough to set things here in motion again.

Tom Finn is a freelance journalist based in Sanaa, Yemen.

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